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malcolmxmovieposterI’m pretty sure I first discovered Malcolm X through Spike Lee’s biopic starring Denzel Washington. Somewhere around 1995 in the 6th grade. I have some vague memories of my parents explaining things to me before the movie, but not too much.

In Ms. Kramer’s 6th grade class we had to do a “Famous American” project. The assignment was do some research, read a biography, then put together a snapshot biography of that person’s life highlights and give a presentation as that person in a way that illustrates why they are an important historical figure. The culminating event was called the “Night of the Notables” in which we all dressed as our notable person and had to represent the person to visiting parents.

I picked Malcolm X. 12 year old white kid in the suburbs was about to research, write about, and present as one of the most polarizing political figures in American history. What could possibly go wrong?

What’s strange is nothing went wrong. I picked Malcolm and I don’t remember my teacher batting an eye. I don’t remember anyone questioning me or giving me a hard time. No comments like “why did you pick a Black guy?” I wanted Malcolm X, I got Malcolm X.

I read the Autobiography of Malcolm X as the biography and did research. I made the snapshot biography. When it came time for the presentations I wore a suit (maybe glasses?) and presented. No fake facial hair, no blackface. It didn’t even cross my mind and thankfully no one suggested it. During the Night of the Notables I was right next to a girl who studied Ayn Rand as her notable American. My 12 year old self didn’t get the irony. I don’t remember any reactions from other parents.

As I think about the 52nd anniversary of Malcolm’s murder, which comes a few short days before my own birthday, on February 21st it strikes me that ever since that project I’ve felt an unspoken affinity for Malcolm. I’m not black and I didn’t grow up with his experiences, but I identify nonetheless. As a 6th grader I took on his persona and  had to put myself in his shoes – to cross identify with why he said what he said. I had to figure out why this man would call people “white devils” or felt the need to speak so strongly for uplifting Black people in this country. Somehow even in his early and most militant stages I never felt like the target of Malcolm’s fire and I’d like to think that this early experience helps me be a more understanding adult.

malcolmxbookcoverI’m also struck, in this current racially and politically charged moment in my lifetime, at how normal it all felt to me then. As I’ve gotten older and as I’ve taught high school, I realize that a white kid in the suburbs even knowing of Malcolm X is not that common. Reading the autobiography? Taking on Malcolm’s persona for a presentation? That’s quite rare. Someone probably should have told me that those are all strange or that I was taking a risk, but no one did. And I’m glad. I might not have done it.

My parents, teachers, and peers all helped normalize the idea of cross-identification for me. I have no idea how much of that was intentional, or accidental. I can even imagine a situation where all the other parents at the Night of the Notables were too stunned to even bring it up, whispering behind closed doors about this strange kid, potentially wondering if my “commie-pinko-hippie” (my words) parents had pushed me to make the choice as a way to “make a statement.” They didn’t. They all let me make my own choices.

My proudest moment of the whole experience actually came a few months later when I showed the snapshot biography  to my older cousin. (I still have it, but it’s buried in storage at my Mom’s house. It’s one of the few school projects I’ve kept.) We were going through the book I made and on the page covering Malcolm’s Hajj I wrote about how he changed his name to el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz. This helped her understand who was being referred to in Lauryn Hill’s verse in “The Beast” when she rhymes: “The subconscious psychology that you use against me / If I lose control will send me to the penitentiary / Such as Alcatraz, or shot up like el-Hajj Malik Shabazz / High class gets bypassed while my ass gets harassed” When she told me that I helped her learn something I was over the moon. (This was about 1996 so it’s a pre-Wikipedia, pre-Genius internet.) When she later bought me the album for my  birthday “The Beast” quickly became my favorite track. More than anything that interaction cemented in me the idea that I could teach things to people older than me through study. This wasn’t part of the original lesson.

The fact that I could choose to study and portray Malcolm X as a 12 year old white kid in suburban America significantly shaped my life. I hope that as an educator I’ve learned from the model that Ms. Kramer set for me in 6th grade. I hope that when my students took on potentially risky academic choices that I was able to support them and help normalize their ideas in a positive way. I also hope that now as a teacher educator I can help teachers feel comfortable supporting their students in these areas.

Even twenty three years later I look out for anything that relates to Malcolm X and I have a personal connection to his work. The experience was one of a handful of truly memorable school assignments and there are so many ways that it could have been stifled. My teacher could have encouraged me to pick a safer choice. My parents could have raised concerns about me portraying a Black revolutionary. My peers could have made fun of me. Instead I was allowed the space to make my own choice and I poured myself into the project. As a result that lesson sticks with me forever when so many others are gone.

 

 

 

Re-visiting a classic is a challenge. I find myself wondering if it will still be relevant or if it will live up to the hype. How much of a universal theme will carry through to an audience many years removed from the original writing.

In education classics age particularly poorly given the rate of research distraction in the field. A ten year old text can feel antiquated and twenty years feels like a lifetime. Educational fads change quickly as the field shoots wildly in hops of finding a silver bullet for student achievement. I’m doubly hesitant when it comes to texts on educational equity. How could a text written before No Child Left Behind and the rise of the education reform movement accurately represent the pressures that teachers feel to educate each child to the highest levels? Equity feels even more tense in a post-Trayvon Martin, post-Michael Brown, post- Eric Garner, America. (And even more pressing in a post-2016 Election America.)

With these thoughts I began to read Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum’s “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting in the Cafeteria?” an unquestioned classic that many educators read in preparation programs.“Why Are All the Black Kids…” is coming up on its twentieth year. Published in 1997, the text essentially covers the basics of racial identity development with a particular focus on Black people in the context of schools.
why_are_all_the_black_kidsThe text is still very strong and deserves its status as a classic. Tatum deftly describes and explores the institutional structures that maintain racism and the ways that people of color, specifically Black people, develop their own racial identities as they negotiate those structures throughout their lives. The chapters on youth and adolescence will be particularly salient for educators as they work to understand their students.

Tatum succeeds in creating a classic by focusing on timeless issues. While the title alludes to a text about schooling, and the text itself is routinely assigned in graduate schools of education, “Why Are All the Black Kids…” is not fundamentally about education or schools. The text is about racial identity development in the context of an institutionally racist society. The text covers schools and schooling because they are a fundamental player in a person’s identity development, but Tatum also addresses influences of community, peers, and the work world from birth through the entire life of a person.

“Why Are All the Black Kids…” most obviously shows its age in statistics and discussion of people of color other than Blacks. This makes sense. The book is a product of its time and Tatum can only use the existing 1997 statistics to make her points. If anything many of the statistics that she presents have only become more troubling in the subsequent nineteen years. Schools are increasingly segregated along racial lines despite rapidly growing Asian and LatinX populations across the country.

At the beginning of chapter 8 where Tatum addresses identity development in people of color who are not Black (or not solely Black) she acknowledges her limits wondering how she might “make the experiences of [her] Latino, Asian, and Native students visible without tokenizing them,” drawing the conclusion that she might not be able to but, ” a sincere, though imperfect, attempt to interrupt the oppression of others is usually better than no attempt at all.” To this end Tatum quickly exposes core issues of oppression that exist for LatinX, Asian, and Native communities without trying to claim expertise. When possible, Tatum also acknowledges other scholars who are more deeply involved with these communities. The ever growing Asian, LatinX, and Middle Eastern populations in the United States and the experiences of those populations in schools highlights the need to include races other than Black and white in conversations of educational equity and antiracist education.

The sentiment that a sincere attempt is better than no attempt is a valuable model. As a white educator focusing on anti-racism in schools I am often concerned with how I show up. I work hard to speak my own truth and avoid speaking for others while authentically working to interrupt oppression and I find myself at times second guessing whether I’m “doing it right.” Tatum’s comment frees me of that concern to some extent as long as I am still willing to hear when I make missteps so as to make continuous improvements.

As “Why Are All the Black Kids…” comes up on its twentieth year I hope that Tatum will revisit the text. In some ways Tatum could simply modernize the text with new statistics and new references. A reference to Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin or Tamir Rice instead of Rodney King. An explanation that the LatinX population is now 16% (up from 12.5% in 2000) and the Asian population continues to grow nationally. It would be fascinating to hear what Tatum has learned about racial identity development in the intervening years as it relates to races other than Blacks.

I wonder if Tatum’s readers would be best served by writing a follow up or companion text – something along the lines of “Why Are All the Black Kids Still Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” In the new context of officer involved shootings of Black youth, Black Lives Matter, Charter Schools, the Obama Presidency, and an upcoming Trump Presidency I imagine identity development is also changing and developing for youth of color.

“Why Are All the Black Kids…” leaves me with more questions than answers. I want to understand the extent to which LatinX, Asian, or Middle Eastern identity development aligns with what Tatum identifies for Black people. I want to understand the variety of ways in which people of color develop their racial identities and how schools support or hinder identity development. I also want to explore more deeply how schools might develop a positive white racial identity that is not rooted in supremacy or exploitation so that white youth can engage the world with an understanding of systematic oppression, a desire to dismantle those systems, and pride in their heritage.

In the wake of Alton Sterling and Philandro Castile’s murders this week, a friend reminded me that one of white allies’ primary roles is to “lessen the burden that people of color have for the education process around issues of justice.”

I don’t get to just wake up and choose to be an ally because it feels good to me. Allyship is “an active, consistent, and arduous practice of unlearning and re-evaluating, in which a person of privilege seeks to operate in solidarity with a marginalized group of people

Another friend of mine recently put out a request through Facebook for help in explaining privilege to a frustrated young white man who couldn’t see it.

I’m posting the request and my response here in the hope that my lived experience with privilege can help other straight white men think more critically about how systems of oppression function for us while oppressing others as well as our role in dismantling those systems.

The Request:

Good People of the Internet: A friend sent this to me. I don’t know the person who posted it, nor do I even know where to start. How would you respond?

“When I was a teenager… I wanted nothing more than to be seen. Now as an adult… who also happens to be white, male, straight, cis-gendered, religious and conservative… I want nothing more than to be invisible. People hate my kind because of some innate privilege I supposedly have. How is it not racist, sexist, or discriminatory to judge me based on the above mentioned features/characteristics? – Oh right, I remember, because we’ve always had “power” and for that reason – we’re incapable of having justified feelings of pain, suffering, frustration, being misunderstood. Right… Okay.

That’s a pretty twisted and inconsistent way of viewing the world if you ask me. How can you expect the “people in power” to be sympathetic toward your cause if you constantly paint our entire group as the source of your problems, if you consistently segregate us from the conversation because “white tears”…. because “mansplaining?” ………….. ARGH!!!! So tired of this.

You know if I really am someone with “privilege” I’d sure like to know where it is? Considering by today’s social standards I’m part of one of (if not the only) group(s) that it’s okay to be prejudiced toward? I sure would love some of this white wealth that I’m supposed to have too…

Go ahead though, keep making us the enemy, keep making an entire race, gender, sex…. the enemy. Thats done us all so much good in the past.”

My response:

All I can do here is speak my truth and relate my lived experience with these ideas. I could drop in research on identity development stages and all sorts of scholarly work, but I’m not sure that’s the place to begin, so I’ll just begin:

I hear you. I am also white, male, straight, cis-gendered and while my politics are pretty left and my religious identity is “complicated” I’d like to think you and I generally move through the world in similar ways.

It’s often challenging for me to negotiate the concept of white privilege while not always feeling particularly privileged as an individual. That’s the bummer right, just because us white people have societal power and wealth as a group, that doesn’t mean that I will experience that power and wealth as an individual. There are plenty of poor white people in this country. When I start thinking about systems and structures though, patterns emerge.

I think it’s normal to see my people represented positively in literature, on TV, and in history class.

I think it’s normal to buy a book for my little white cousin with characters that look like her.

I think it’s normal to make a point at work and have people seriously consider my opinions.

I can dress like Bernie Sanders and maintain my credibility.

I can skip shaving for a day or two and maintain my credibility.

When a white person does something undesirable I don’t have to worry that society will think that all white people are bad.

Some of those things shouldn’t be privileges. Those are experiences everyone should have, but it turns out they don’t.  Since I think those things are normal, it’s easy for me to miss how others don’t share my experience. I’m more aware of my own privilege thanks to incredibly helpful and dedicated white women, women of color, men of color, and students I’ve had the privilege to teach who all call me on my shit and help me see life from their perspective.

I had to learn to thank my wife when she called me out. (This was not easy. I promise.) You need to be willing to be wrong and willing to fix things when you fuck up.

If I love the people in my life who hold identities other than my own than I have to support them on their own terms. I need to trust them when they tell me they’re hurt, oppressed, or angry.  I still fuck up a lot and my relationships with various people I love are more important to me than my need to be right.

I don’t experience people telling me that I won’t do a good job because I’m white so I don’t know what it’s like to be told you can’t do a good job because you’re Black. I have to respect my Black friends’ truth on the matter.

I don’t experience people telling me that I’m untrustworthy because I’m heterosexual so I have to respect my homosexual friends’ truth on the matter.

I want to live in a world where each person can be treated as an individual and live their life the way they want to. We don’t live in that world yet because people that look like me set up structures to maintain systematic advantage over other people and I benefit from those structures whether I want to or not. It shows up in housing. It shows up in schools. It shows up with police.

I can feel guilty, but my guilt changes nothing. Feeling guilty is a passive act. Dismantling oppression requires ongoing action.

As trite as it may sound Peter Parker’s uncle Ben is correct: “with great power comes great responsibility.” This means that sometimes I do need to hold on to my feelings of guilt and suck it up. It also means that if I am going to engage in anti-racist work I have to do it for the betterment of people of color, as opposed to seeking credit for myself like I’m trying to earn the one woke white guy merit badge.

My own shift came from thinking about other people as individuals the way I wanted them to think about me. It’s as simple as the golden rule of treating others as you wish to be treated. I want to go through my life getting my identity affirmed therefore I should want that for other people as well and I should actively affirm others’ identities. In my lived experience the most anger comes from those who have experienced the most pain. The least I can do is believe what I’m hearing and work toward removing structures that cause pain.

The next step is to help other see the structures and systems that I can see to bring more allies to the cause.